NEW YORK – I have had the same apartment in New York City for almost 40 years but have actually lived in it for less than half of that time, owing to a busy travel schedule. I enjoy it; my experiences abroad have taught me the importance of an open mind and have given me a willingness to wander off the beaten path – not only to keep life interesting, but also to understand in a meaningful way that things do not look the same from every vantage point.
The most interesting lessons often lie in the mundane – those aspects of everyday life that locals take for granted and tourists tend to overlook. For example, at my Western hotel in South Korea there was a pictogram alongside the toilet explaining how to use it properly – that is, to sit on the seat, rather than crouching over the bowl, as one would on a traditional South Korean toilet.
In 1989, during a trip to Estonia – then still a part of the Soviet Union – I asked my interpreter, a moonlighting dentist, to take me to her dental clinic. Beyond getting a glimpse of the equipment – old and sickly green – I learned that my interpreter and her colleagues were augmenting their state salaries with direct (and much higher) payments from Finnish dental tourists. When they had saved enough money, they explained, they would purchase new equipment and launch their own practice.
My dentist-guide also described her work spreading “sanitary propaganda” – that is, visiting local grade schools to teach children how to brush their teeth. But, she noted, many could not even afford toothbrushes. I had had no idea that the tin of dental floss in my pocket – which I quickly handed over – was so valuable.
Around the same time, while sitting in a government office in Moscow, I gained another small but powerful insight. When the phone rang, no one moved – an unnerving response to an American, for whom a ringing phone demands an immediate reaction in anticipation of an opportunity. When I asked about it, the employees explained what to them was obvious: “People call offices only about problems.” Solving problems, they evidently believed, was not part of their job.
Late communism was a strange time indeed. A Hungarian friend who worked in a Budapest hotel during that period described an experience that surprised even him. When asked to take several bottles of water to a room that he had not previously known existed, he found a group of men wearing headsets, listening to what was happening in the other rooms.
More recently, in 2008, I took a weekend visit to Baku, Azerbaijan, the hometown of my friend and travel companion Tatyana Kanzevali – a former chess champion who had often played against Garry Kasparov while he, too, was growing up in Baku. The opportunity to see the city through a local’s eyes, hearing stories about everything from high school teachers to food shortages, was invaluable.
If I had not known better, I might have thought that the word “aliyev” meant street, because it appeared on almost every street sign. But it was the name of the ruler, Heydar Aliyev, whose son, Ilham, succeeded him in 2003 and remains President to this day.
During our visit, my friend and I visited an orphanage to which she had sent a dozen computers the previous year. Some had been distributed to administrators, but several were now available for children to use during supervised lessons. I vividly remember the children’s delighted squeals as they ran through the yard playing with the bubble-blowing pens that we had brought them.
Finally, two years ago in Cuba, after advertising for “entrepreneurs” on Twitter, I had the opportunity to meet several dissidents. The meeting was fascinating, despite – or perhaps partly because of – the furtive glances of two watchful men peering at us from behind their newspapers at the next table.
But a thirst for knowledge is useful not only in foreign countries. Indeed, it is critical to gaining insight into the differences – and similarities – among people of different backgrounds, even those who live just a few towns or miles apart.
That is precisely the attitude that I hope to bring to my travels within the United States for The Way to Wellville contest, in which five communities will compete to improve their health. Rick Brush, the competition’s CEO, and I have already visited several of the 10-15 communities that we will explore before choosing the five contestants.
One stop was Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where we met a group of health- and civic-minded citizens at a grade school. Teachers described the experience of taking unfinished meals home from a restaurant in a doggy bag, in the hope of instilling in their students the understanding that it is better to enjoy leftovers later than to overeat now. (And, my Silicon Valley perspective told me, the restaurant could increase its revenue by selling ads on the sides of the doggy bags.)
In Niagara Falls, New York, we met with a larger group, including Mayor Paul Dyster, who last year officiated at the state’s first gay wedding, and a pastor who had also attended that wedding, carrying a protest sign. Despite their differences, both came to the meeting to discuss the community’s health with a friendly and constructive attitude.
However, the pastor did express some frustration that the police drive through, rather than walk around, the neighborhoods. A couple of hours later, as we drove through on a site visit, our path was blocked by two police cars, stopped side by side in the middle of the street, with the officers talking. I doubt they were discussing their – and their community’s – health.